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Pepper-Spraying Occupy: An Assault on Our Democracy

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This weekend, while listening to an NPR story about police using tear gas and rubber bullets to break up a demonstration, I was actually surprised when it turned out the newscaster was talking about Tahrir Square -- I had assumed it was about another brutal response to a peaceful protest here at home.

All across the country -- most recently on the campus of UC Davis -- a war is being waged. This isn't a battle over parks and tents and sleeping bags. Though many of our leaders don't seem to realize it, this is a battle about their credibility -- even their legitimacy -- about how they represent us, about whom their real allegiance is to. Their misguided response to the Occupy protests has actually proved the point of the protesters more than any sign or chant could. Sure, you can clear the protesters out from this or that park in the middle of the night, or send in riot-geared police to clear a campus sidewalk, but that doesn't mean you've won. Quite the opposite. As James Fallows writes, "what is going on is a war of ideas, based in turn on moral standing."

The Occupy movement has been a test -- a national MRI -- that has allowed us to check-in on the health of our democracy by allowing us to see what's going on underneath the surface of America's power structures. And the results are dire. What the movement, and the response to it, has shown is a government almost completely disconnected from those it purports to represent.

Each week brings an image more iconic than the last. There was the NYPD officer calmly walking up to several women who were penned, pepper-spraying them in the face and then slinking off. There was the 84-year-old woman pepper-sprayed in Seattle, along with a pregnant 19-year-old and a priest. There was Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen splayed on the ground with a serious head injury after being assaulted by police in Oakland. There was the picture of Elizabeth Nichols being pepper-sprayed directly in the face at close range by police in Portland.

And there were the indelible images from the surprise 1 a.m. raid on Occupy Wall Street's Zuccotti Park encampment by the NYPD -- which, Mayor Bloomberg claimed, was because it had become "a health and fire safety hazard." Really? Does the city traditionally take care of "health and fire safety hazards" under cover of darkness?

The mayor may have won the battle of sleeping bags in a park but, as protester Nate Barchus put it, "this reminds everyone who was occupying exactly why they were occupying."

If the mayor is so concerned about the hazards posed by people sleeping on the street and is prepared to use immense city resources to take care of it, as of last year there were over 3,000 homeless people sleeping on the streets of New York City.

City officials usually like to publicize their efforts fighting "health and fire safety hazards" for their citizens. But not this time. Not only were the media not allowed to report on the raid on Zuccotti, many reporters were barricaded, blocked, manhandled and even arrested. "The first thing the police did was clear out the journalists so that they could not see what was going on," writes Eric Alterman, "just as they routinely do in totalitarian nations."

Rivaling his "health and fire safety hazard" line, Bloomberg claimed the reason reporters were kept away was "to protect members of the press." Another hit to the mayor's credibility. As Harry Siegel put it in the Daily News:

The city doesn't take actions it's proud of at 1 a.m., and with the police literally shoving reporters away from the scene, 'to protect members of the press,' as Bloomberg insisted. That 'protection' applied to at least six journalists who were arrested, and many others who were handled roughly, including myself.

If you're a government official and you choose to do something in the middle of the night and you don't want the press to see, that's a pretty good sign you shouldn't be doing it. Since September, 26 reporters covering the Occupy movement have been arrested (you can see the run-down here, courtesy of Choire Sicha). A spokesman for the Mayor later bragged that "only five" of those arrested were officially credentialed by the NYPD. What a victory for civic government! Putting aside the fact that the NYPD doesn't get to decide who "the press" is, they actually want credit for "only" arresting five credentialed reporters of the many they shoved and beat and blocked and barricaded who were doing nothing more than trying to tell the citizens of New York what the officials they voted into office and whose salary they pay were doing in their name.

And then there is UC Davis, where police calmly and at close range pepper-sprayed students who were sitting down, arms locked and huddled. As the New York Times notes, one voice on the video of the assault is heard screaming, "These are children. These are children."

If this video were from China or Syria, James Fallows writes, "we'd think: this is what happens when authority is unaccountable and has lost any sense of human connection to a subject population."

The response by UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi illustrates that lack of connection. In her first statement on Friday, she passive-aggressively said, "We deeply regret that many of the protestors today chose not to work with our campus staff and police to remove the encampment as requested." Hard to look at the way those campus police were outfitted and think they're people who really came ready to "work with" others. No, they weren't there to work with -- they were there to inflict upon.

By Saturday, in a statement that used "safe" or "safety" four times, Chancellor Katehi said that the officers' actions were "chilling" and that the video "raises many questions." That's certainly true. It also raises one answer: governments that purport to be democratic shouldn't assault their own citizens in the name of keeping them safe.

Obviously, protests and use of public space present complicated challenges, but it is actually possible to navigate them, as government officials of the city of Davis itself seem to have done. This was a statement put out by Occupy Davis:

At Occupy Davis relations with the democratically elected city council and local police forces have been genial and productive. The authorities have worked continuously to harmonize the occupation's presence with the park and surrounding businesses and ensure that all aspects of the encampment remain non-violent. Those in charge of using force are aware that they are democratically elected officials that are directly accountable to the people.

That awareness seems to be in short supply, however. Three blocks away, UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza defended her officers by saying -- stunningly -- that their actions were justified because camping on the quad is "not safe for multiple reasons." The main one of which is apparently that you'll be violently assaulted by her officers.

Kristin Koster, who aided protestors who had been pepper-sprayed while trying to shield others said: "When you protect the things you believe in with your body, it changes you for good. It radicalizes you for good." By "for good," it's unclear whether she meant permanently or in a positive way. Maybe it's both, and, if so, she's right. And it happens not just by doing it, but by being witness to others doing it.

And that radicalizing for good effect can now be scaled up dramatically because of the abundance of smartphone cameras. The weapons brought by the police are more powerful in the immediate sense, but the power of the weapons of the protesters and the press (both citizen journalists and those officially credentialed by the NYPD) is much greater and more long lasting. As Andrew Sprung writes at xpostfactoid:

You have a truncheon or gun, I have a camera. You inflict pain, I inflict infamy. Martyrdom is instantaneous and viral. Bearing witness is the keystone of political action. It can also affect the action directly. You shoot, I tweet (or IM or phone) for more demonstrators.

Or, as Carlos Miller put it on the blog Photography Is Not a Crime: "for every pepper spray canister they have, we have at least ten cameras. And that's why we'll win in the long run."

Another example of just how powerful images can be came the next day. These images weren't of a loud protest, but just the opposite. "I thought I wouldn't see a more dramatic video than the ones yesterday of the pepper-spraying of students by police at UC Davis," writes Boing Boing's Xeni Jarden. "I was wrong."

As Chancellor Katehi left a meeting and walked to her car, student protesters parted and watched her in stony silence. "The disciplined, contemptuous dead silence of the protesters through whom UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi walks en route to her car is another astonishingly powerful demonstration of moral imagery," writes Fallows. "Again, as a moral confrontation, this is a rout."

It's worth noting that some of the most troubling instances of violence have happened in cities -- Portland, Seattle, Oakland -- led by leaders who are not predisposed to seeing protesters as violent hippies. In fact, Jean Quan, mayor of Oakland, site of some of the most brutal clashes, issued a statement early on saying, "We support the goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement."

And President Obama has likewise expressed sympathy for the Occupy movement. "I understand the frustrations being expressed in those protests," he told ABC's Jake Tapper. "The most important thing we can do right now is those of us in leadership letting people know that we understand their struggles and we are on their side, and that we want to set up a system in which hard work, responsibility, doing what you're supposed to do, is rewarded."

That sounds good, but setting up that system will require more than "understanding." We need to start closing the gap between rhetoric and reality. In his open letter demanding the resignation of Chancellor Katehi, UC Davis assistant professor Nathan Brown writes:

Your words express concern for the safety of our students. Your actions express no concern whatsoever for the safety of our students. I deduce from this discrepancy that you are not, in fact, concerned about the safety of our students.

It's another example of the events of the Occupy movement serving as metaphors for the country as a whole. We hear a lot from our leaders about their concern for the middle class and the need for jobs. But their actions express considerably less concern. And that discrepancy, between words and actions, is where this battle of credibility is being waged.

That the Occupy movement has pushed this battle into the national consciousness -- no small feat in a country that loves to be distracted -- is undeniable. "This peaceful grassroots movement has succeeded in raising awareness about growing income and wealth inequality and, more generally, a system that seems better at serving the privileged few than enabling jobs and income growth for the many," writes PIMCO CEO Mohamed El-Erian. And Politico points out that the term "income inequality" went from being used in the media 91 times the week before the protests started to nearly 500 hundred last week.

The challenge now, writes El-Erian, is to pivot from offering a critique of the current system to building a system to replace it. True, but we should remember that by the time Dr. King made his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the civil rights movement was almost ten years old. Change is not going to happen in an instant. But the more government officials continue to respond in a way that only serves to illustrate the critique the movement is making, the faster change will come.

Shepard Fairey, in explaining why he morphed his famous "Hope" poster into one championing the Occupy movement, wrote:

Obviously, just voting is not enough. We need to use all of our tools to help us achieve our goals and ideals. However, I think idealism and realism need to exist hand in hand. Change is not about one election, one rally, one leader, it is about a constant dedication to progress and a constant push in the right direction. Let's be the people doing the right thing as outsiders and simultaneously push the insiders to do the right thing for the people.

Having those insiders recognize that what they're doing is supposed to be for the people and not against the people would be a good start.

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